The word ‘meeting’ likely conjures up an uninspiring image for you – talking through an agenda (if there is one) point-by-point, some people dominating, others zoning out. The typical format is so easy, it’s almost automatic, without really thinking whether it’s what we really need to make progress. We’re getting of tired meetings. We have too many of them, and when they’re not run well, they’re unproductive with no real outcomes.
But teams still need to get together to have discussions – whether virtually or physically. So when you do meet, how can you make sure it’s meaningful?
An effective meeting starts before the calendar invites are sent out and the agenda is written. It starts with asking two questions: 1) why are we meeting? 2) what’s the best format for it?
The team at Nordnet Design Studio have taken a proactive approach to clearly defining the types of meetings they have, and have built these into a rhythm. Inspired by this, here is a list of 26 different ways to meet. There’s something in here whether you need to communicate updates, generate ideas, have high-level strategy discussions or even just get to know each other better.
You may have already heard of many of these, some may be new to you, and a few are formats I’ve designed for my own clients. The list is by no means complete, but putting them together in one place shows the variety of ways you can convene with your team, and you can choose the right one for a given need.
You can also consider how using these various meetings at different times can create a routine and momentum for your team. A good mix of different types of meetings can help to build and enhance a team’s culture.
In alphabetical order:
All-hands or Town Hall
A company-wide event that’s used to communicate updates, make announcements, share objectives and celebrate achievements. For many companies, all-hands meetings are an important part of keeping people connected to the company’s mission. It’s often more of a conference style set-up with key information delivered through presentations, but an important part of the event is inviting questions and dialogue from all employees.
This is how Square run theirs.
A format developed by the team at Google Ventures. When they realised that due to their flat structure, they missed getting regular feedback on their performance, they set up anxiety parties to share their concerns. Run twice yearly, each person raises their own anxieties about their work and ask the others to assess how much of an issue it is to them, on a scale of 1-5. Read more about anxiety parties.
Away day or Offsite
A facilitated team meeting, usually held annually away and from the office to take a deep-dive into an area or problem. Holding it at a different location helps a team to gain a new perspective and look at work in a new way.
This Harvard Business Review article provides good tips on how to plan an offsite that actually works.
Despite many criticisms of the technique, brainstorming can still a useful tool for ideas generation when it’s used effectively. Brainstorming fails when we only see it as an ad-hoc, free-for-all, ‘all ideas are good ideas’ session. To get them working, apply guidelines and create some structure, craft good questions, give people time to think individually first, and appoint a facilitator.
Feedback sessions for design or visual work need to be managed carefully to ensure they are structured and constructive. The design studio at Nordnet, who inspired this post, borrowed some techniques from Facebook: ask questions, be objective, be concrete.
Pixar’s Braintrust is another great example of a well-managed critique session. A director presents their script and storyboard ideas for their current project, to get expert insight from their colleagues. The director is then free to adopt or reject any of the feedback.
A storytelling format from Gamestorming which can be run in 30-45 minutes, using keywords to spark dialogue. Team members share stories of their achievements, learnings and failures in an ‘informal training session’ to learn from each other and find commonalities.
A focused block of time where a team will work alongside each other to power through tasks related to a project. This is especially useful if the project isn’t a major priority and the team members are finding it hard to allocate time. The co-working meeting provides a motivated way to get things done.
For brainstorming in a large group, and when there are multiple topics to be addressed. Although the term originated from the architecture sector, it’s now commonly used in design. Attendees split into small groups, brainstorm in response to a question, then pass their ideas onto another group to build on. A recorder is appointed from each group to synthesise the results and feedback.
Similar to a charette, a design studio is an iterative process for building ideas, often used for digital products. The team start off by understanding the problem, then individually sketch ideas in a quick round. After presenting ideas, the team do another round of individual sketching, this time taking any ideas they heard to build into their own. The design studio ends with collaborative sketching to bring together solutions.
This is a common practice in Sweden which translates to “have coffee together”. In the workplace, fikas are often held daily as a way to encourage colleagues to have regular, informal chats.
Another one from the Nordnet Design Studio, a goalfest meeting is a way to share what they’ve achieved in the past week, and what they will focus on for the next week. It’s a structured session which looks at company, team and individual goals. All goals are recorded and reviewed for accountability.
Hack Day or hack-a-thon
An intense form of collaboration over a few days where people form cross-functional teams to develop a prototype. The project is usually outside of the team’s daily work, and can be an opportunity to explore side projects or other ideas that could be valuable to the company.
Buffer experimented with a 2-day hack day with great results.
Whereas Hack Days and Sprints (see below) are more for exploration of new ideas, I’ve used Lab Days to specifically fast-track a project that a team is already working on. Instead of having shorter meetings stretched over a period of weeks, the team dedicate a one-off, longer period of time to move a project forward quickly.
An informal session for team members to learn from and about each other over their lunch break (everyone brings their own food). Each team members takes their turn to host the session, where they share their knowledge about a skill they have, personal interest, inspiration or hobby.
Open Space or Unconference
For larger numbers, open space is an event format where there is no planned agenda. Instead, the agenda is formed on the day by the attendees, who run workshops or lead talks themselves. It’s an energetic and flexible format that evolves as the day progresses, sparking ideas, connections and interesting conversations.
A session to get a new team onto the same page and set a project up for success. As well as discussing what the team will work on, a project kickoff should be used to explore how the team will work together to get things done. A great session will uncover any assumptions to be addressed, share team expertise and clarify roles, set objectives and define what success looks like.
When a project has ended, it’s all too easy to move straight onto the next bit of work. But a lot can be learned from reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, mainly around process, to be take forward into future work.
This can be tricky when a project didn’t go so well, but even more important so that mistakes aren’t repeated. This is how, and why, Etsy run blameless post-mortems.
More related to the frequency that it is held, than the format. But usually a strategic and objective-driven meeting to review achievements from the last quarter, and plan the next three months of activity.
A multi-day, off-site gathering for teams which includes a mixture of work-related activities and socialising. A retreat is held on a much larger scale than an away day, sometimes at an exciting location. Popular with companies that have a lot of remote workers, like Buffer (whose last retreat took place in Hawaii for 90 team members and their families) and Strategyzer.
Here are some tips on how to run a great company retreat from Help Scout.
While post-mortems take place after a project has ended, retrospectives take place on an ongoing basis during projects for teams to reflect on how they are working and make changes.
Although the term ‘sprint’ describes the cycles that Agile teams work in, the team at Google Ventures have also popularised it with their process for exploring a new idea. Over 5 days, a selected team work together to identify and understand a big problem, generate solutions, prototype an idea and test it with users.
Teams can often get caught up in the day-to-day delivery of tasks, so strategy sessions can be useful to help them take a step back. It’s a way of looking at the bigger picture, and bringing everyone together to review the team’s overall direction. It can be part of an annual away day, but can also be held more regularly throughout the year.
This a platform for team members to share and present work that they’re proud of, and is a great way to boost morale. It also provides a way for the team to learn about the skills and expertise of others. At the DIBI conference in London, Frances Berriman described how, when she worked in the design team at GOV.UK, show-and-tells became a key ritual.
Stand-up or huddle
Stand-ups help to avoid ‘meeting bloat’ for regular team updates. Usually held each morning, and with everyone standing up to keep it short and focused, each person shares: 1) what they’ve completed, 2) what they’re working on, and 3) anything they need help with. The aim is to identify any bottlenecks and find ways to clear them.
In contrast to the ‘typical meeting’ format described at the beginning of this post, a workshop is a collaborative and dynamic session that involves a series of activities to get participants to a desired outcome. It can be used for generating ideas, gathering information, and sometimes for making decisions.
An event format, related to open space (see above), that enables a fast-paced discussion between a large group of people. The space is set up cabaret-style, like a café, to encourage an informal atmosphere. In 15-min rounds, attendees rotate around the tables to discuss open-ended questions that have been set previously.
Like any effective meeting or workshop, all of these formats will need preparation, good facilitation and follow-up. But the next time you need to call a ‘meeting’ consider whether any of the above formats will serve the purpose better.
Images from Breather on Unsplash.